I really love judging RWA chapter contests for unpublished writers (both contemporary and historical manuscripts), mainly because I got so much out of the contests when I was pre-published, including my agent! I credit contest feedback for teaching me to write. That sounds hyperbolic, but it really isn’t. My degree is in chemical engineering. I don’t have a home RWA chapter. It was years before I found a critique partner. Besides being an inhaler of all books, I had never attempted to write before I sat down in January of 2012 to start a book. A historical romance actually.
About six months into writing, I discovered RWA existed. I joined and got my first RWR with the list of chapter contests in the back. I entered seven (7!) that fall, sure I was destined to win them all. (Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen!) I made about every newbie mistake possible. But, guess what? I fixed all those mistakes and went on to sign with an agent who was a final judge of one of the contests and sold five books in three months. I want this for you!!
With my background out of the way, I’m going to jump into the mistakes I commonly see when I judge entries, starting at the beginning. Literally, the beginning of you manuscript. That’s the thing about a contest that only looks at the first 20-30 pages of your book. Your beginning must draw the reader in and be memorable.
It’s no surprise the biggest issue with first chapters is managing backstory. Two big problems I see:
- The “Coming Into Town” beginning. This can be in a car or carriage and usually involves the hero or heroine ruminating on what is bringing them back to their hometown or why they’re moving into a new town. It’s usually a big fat stinky info dump. Doesn’t matter if the heroine is describing the scenery in between introspection about her family drama or getting fired from her job. Unless something active happens, like she gets pulled over by the cops or gets beset by highwaymen or rammed in the bumper by a man who turns out to be a villain/hero, just skip it. It’s often boring for the reader. The other issues with this type of beginning is that it’s very common and doesn’t stand out. Three out of four manuscripts in one contest I judged were “coming into town” beginnings. Look, this is not a hard and fast rule, but really think about why using this type of beginning is critical for your character’s arc and not a convenience.
- Mirrors: Don’t have your heroine (or hero) stand in front of a mirror and describe herself to herself. At this point in your writing journey, maybe you’re rolling your eyes and saying, of course not. Well, guess what, I DID THIS in the first scene of my first book draft! I didn’t know any better at the time. I needed a contest judge to tell me.
- The “As You Know” conversation. For a new author (or even experienced one) it can be a deceptive backstory dump. I typically see this conversation taking place between a main and secondary character. For example, maybe it’s the heroine giving the lowdown to her best friend. Except, it’s really a sneaky way of imparting backstory to the reader. If you can add in phrase “As you know” before dialogue, you have a problem.
“Your brother should be helping,” her best friend said.
As you know “He’s been drinking too much and parties every night.”
If the two characters are close, then it’s a conversation they would have already had. Plus, it’s usually all telling with no showing. Better to start with the brother coming in drunk and the sister confronting him in the wee hours. That packs an emotional punch and builds sympathy with both characters.
A last word on backstory: The best piece of advice I read about backstory came from a Margie Lawson class (I think she got it from someone else, though). Imagine writing all the tidbits of backstory for your characters on a pane of glass. Then, shatter that glass. Pick up only the most important facts. Facts that the reader must know. Sliver them strategically throughout the first third of the book. Discard the rest.
A few other things I want to touch on:
- Balance. There should be a balance between introspection, action, dialogue, and description from the beginning. I’ve read contest entries whose entire first chapter is all introspection. Don’t do this! Another trick I picked up from Margie Lawson (if you haven’t taken any of her on-line classes, I highly recommend them) is to get four different colored highlighters. Use one to highlight dialogue, one to highlight actions, one to highlight scene/character descriptions, and another to highlight introspection. You want to have a nice mix of all the colors or else your pace and flow suffers.
- Prologues. I’ll admit, I love the damn things, but the overall consensus is to avoid them. My way around this? CALL THEM CHAPTER 1! My first three Cottonbloom books start with an incident between my hero and heroine that took place many years in the past. That scene was needed to frame their present. But, make sure it’s absolutely necessary. Don’t use a prologue as a means to impart backstory. It must reveal something vitally important about your hero or heroine or their relationship with each other (not necessarily romantic.) If you can lose the prologue and still understand the story, then…lose the prologue.
- The often heard advice: Start your book with action! I would posit that the advice should really be “Start your book with the inciting incident!” The inciting incident is what upsets the balance of your characters’ lives and sets the story in motion. This “incident/action” doesn’t have to be a fight or a car crash, it can be something much more subtle.
- More well-intentioned advice: your hero and heroine should meet in Chapter 1. I do agree you should get them on the page as soon as possible (don’t wait three chapters!), but sometimes the inciting incident only involves the hero, and it snowballs to include the heroine. I have at least two books where the hero and heroine don’t meet until Chapter 2 or very late in Chapter 1. On the other hand, sometimes the hero meeting the heroine is the inciting incident. This is often the case for a romance. For example, maybe the man who rear ends the heroine on her way back into town is the hero. And a cop! AND her first love! That would be fun, right?
In the next post, I’m going to discuss what was nemesis when I started and something I see a lot in contest entries…Head hopping and Deep POV.
Do you have any advice for beginnings?
An award-winning author, Laura Trentham was born and raised in a small town in Tennessee. Although she loved English and reading in high school, she was convinced an English degree equated to starvation. She chose the next most logical major—Chemical Engineering—and worked in a hard hat and steel toed boots for several years.
She writes sexy, small town contemporaries and smoking hot Regency historicals. KISS ME THAT WAY, Cottonbloom Book 1, is a finalist for the Stiletto Contest and for the National Readers Choice Award. THEN HE KISSED ME, Cottonbloom Book 2, was named an Amazon Best Romance of 2016 and is a finalist for the National Excellence for Romance Fiction. TILL I KISSED YOU, Cottonbloom Book 3, is a finalist in the Maggie contest. When not lost in a cozy Southern town or Regency England, she’s shuttling kids to soccer, helping with homework, and avoiding the Mt. Everest-sized pile of laundry that is almost as big as the to-be-read pile of books on her nightstand.